Blake Neely is the valiant composer behind an endless roster of fan favorite television series including Arrow, Riverdale, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Blindspot, You, All American, The Mentalist, Brothers & Sisters, and Everwood. Hailing from Paris, Texas, Blake’s childhood revolved around his affinities for the large than life storytelling of comic books, the titans of film music, and sparkling, synth-heavy 80’s production, which inspired his own pursuit of music. Looking to turn his lifelong passion into a viable career, Blake applied to the University of Texas music school, only to receive a harsh letter of rejection. Turning that ‘no’ into powerful ammunition, Blake cleared his own path, relocating to Los Angeles and securing opportunities to work with musical luminaries including Michael Kamen, Vangelis, and Hans Zimmer. Fast forward to the present, Blake continues to enjoy a flourishing collaboration with brilliant writer, director, and producer, Greg Berlanti, cultivating stylized, emotionally nuanced scores for iconic superheroes, menacing criminals, and every character in between. In our uplifting discussion, Blake reveals the responsibility he feels when composing for the legendary DC Comics franchise and the importance of not being too precious with your art.
You are originally from Paris, Texas and began studying piano at the age of four. During your formative years, who were the artists and figures in your life that inspired your pursuit of music?
I mean, they say that's when I found interest in the piano and started reaching up to the keys. My sister was taking lessons at the time. She's older than me, so after that, they started me on lessons. It’s unfortunate because I stopped lessons around that know-it-all phase when I was 14 or 15. I'd be a much better piano player today if I hadn’t.
What was nice was that even in this small town of Paris, Texas, my parents managed to find me a teacher who, not only made me learn all the basics and study all the masters but appreciated that I wanted to play my own stuff. I remember that every recital she would have me play Chopin, Beethoven, and then some piece I had written. It was very encouraging, to be in this small town, wanting to write music and not knowing what to do with it. She really helped me back then.
I just turned 50 this year, so we’re talking about a time with no internet. I could go to the library but Paris, Texas didn’t have much information on film music. It was interesting, finding my way to what I wanted to do. I guess you could say I was a big television, comic book, and movie nerd. That’s how I spent my time, as well as Legos and action figures. It all fed into these fictional worlds, and I just loved the stories they were telling.
I was also very into classical music. I would take my parents' records, listen to Bernstein [Leonard, famous composer, conductor, and educator], and I would fake conduct in front of the hairbrush. It was after a fateful viewing of Star Wars at the age of eight, when I said, ”That's what I wanna do.” I remember sitting there, and paraphrasing an eight-year old’s brain; I thought to myself, “I’ve never heard this before. This must be a job, and I want that job.”. After that, I became fascinated with film scores and orchestral music. At the same time, I was always into pop and rock. I was an '80s kid, so how can you not be into synth pop, big guitars, and gated drums? I was really into synthesizers and all that.
I would say, during those formative years, the number one artists would have to be Beethoven, John Williams, and probably, Bon Jovi and The Cars. Those are the ones I gravitated towards — highly polished and produced music. Now, when I look back on the music I write for some of these shows, it’s sort of a soup of those four influences.
I’ve always thought that you could never have one sound that wouldn’t work with another. I'd probably be the worst chef because I'd put cream in something that didn't use cream. I just think that if you want to make sense of big guitars and urban beats in an orchestral piece, that’s great. Just make sense of it. I have always appreciated all types of music, and I am not just saying that. It really depends on my mood. I could listen to polka on the way home tonight, and be completely inspired.
What were the most significant highs and lows you experienced as a young composer?
I would say, my number one low is what I honestly tell people ended up being my number one high. This was when I went off to the University of Texas. Now I’m in the big city, I’m going to a big school, and I’m going to study music. Then I got a rejection letter from the University of Texas’ music department, saying “You should consider other career options.” It was a huge low at the time. Enormous low. Nineteen years old, and I was like, "Just what am I gonna do now? I thought this was my ticket."
Looking back, even six months later, but especially now, I realize that it just gave me this fire to prove them wrong. I wanted to prove myself right, prove that I could do this without formal training. In some ways, maybe the rejection was a blessing because I didn’t become academic in my thinking. Sometimes, that approach is very necessary for film scoring — don’t think academically, think storytelling. I mean, Danny Elfman showed us best. If you want to slam from this key into this key, and you can do it, do it! If it works, then it can become a style. Whereas, if you have too much training, maybe you're thinking, "Well, I can't do that." Actually, you can. There are no rules. So, that rejection truly was the biggest low and high point — it happened together.
The other thing I’ve learned over the years is that rejection is a huge part of this industry. At 19, that experience helped me understand. If you can't find a way to make a rejection a positive... Every job I've ever lost, everything I've ever gone up for and didn't get, I don't necessarily see it as a rejection. I try to say, "Well, what can I learn from that? How can I do it better the next time?” Being taught that as a 19-year-old that, has prepared me for times when a director sits on my couch, and says, "I hate that. What else you got?” It thickens your armor.
While I would never want to make it sound like, “Oh, this is such a hard job," when I've got friends that have really tough jobs, who save lives, who build roads, who teach kids, it’s still not easy. I think the most difficult part of it is the time you’re not given. It’s always a rush, and you have to learn how to handle rejection, but ultimately, this isn’t my story. I’m just helping them tell their story. So, if I’m not telling it right, I’m happy to try it any other way. It’s very much a service industry, but it's also very creative and collaborative. You might be in love with a piece you’ve done, but then you get this big sweeping note that makes you rethink it. If you're not precious about it, it can send you in a direction that you would have never gone in. Then you make this incredible piece, and it’s because you've been collaborating with them.
We just did an episode for Riverdale, and if I had just watched it right off the bat, I wouldn't have thought to give it an '80s style. Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, creator of Riverdale] said, "I want you to go as '80s as you want," and I thought, "Wow! Okay, I didn’t even think of it." Sherri [Chung, co-composer of Riverdale] and I just went off and did this high octane ’80’s episode. In that kind of collaboration, it can go the other way too. There have been many times that I’ve played something and been like, ”Oh, I don't think you specifically wanted music here, but let me show you what adding music does.” After I play it, it'll be like, 'Oh, my God. I'm seeing this scene in a whole different story now." That's the excitement of this art form. Music can add humor to a scene that isn’t funny. It can make it feel scary. It’s just about knowing what we should be doing for the story at what point.
Out of curiosity, what is the meaning behind the name of your studio, Cow on the Wall?
I like to say, "because there's a cow on the wall," and then when people say, "why is there a cow on the wall?”. I say, "because it's called Cow on the Wall Studio." So, you get a circular argument. A long time ago, right before I started composing, my father-in-law’s partner gave me this wooden longhorn head that I hung on my studio wall above the piano. As you know, I’m from Texas, and I went to the University of Texas. Around that time, I was looking to set up a publishing company very quickly. When you’re in a rush, you have to come up with a name that no one else will have. So, I was looking around, and I went, "How about Cow on the Wall?" After that, it became the publishing company, and later, the name of the company and the studio. Now, we’ve got cows everywhere — lots of longhorn heads around. We’ve even got an actual cow outside the studio. It’s funny, but it makes sense to me. To others, it’s just like, “That’s a goofy name.”
Blake Neely’s Cow On The Wall Studio in Los Angeles, California.
Riverdale is the enigmatic and alluring hit series inspired by Archie Comics with a hint of Twin Peaks. What themes within the narrative offered the greatest opportunities for artistic expression?
What’s been great fun is that there is no time period for Riverdale. When I met with Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, creator of Riverdale], we were talking about what he wanted out of the music. He said, "Well, I'm not sure what time period to put it in, because the cars are '50s. The diner's '50s. The clothing’s sort of '70s, sometimes, '80s. They've got stuff from the ‘60s. Sometimes, the music is from the '60s. And yet, they're on laptops and talking on cell phones.” I said, "Well, what if there's no time period to the music? We don't want to stick in the '50s.' It was an interesting conversation, and it was like, "Well, how do you do that with music?”
When Sherri [Chung, co-composer of Riverdale] came in, we talked about it, and we decided to incorporate all styles, using something from the 1700s and something from 2018 together. We’ve done everything from swing music. As I said, we recently did ’80’s music. Last season, we were even doing horror, but it was kind of tongue in cheek. It felt a little bit like a throwback to the Friday the 13th score. In one way, you might be scared, but at least, somewhere in your brain, you’re laughing. Watching every episode with the creator, he laughs at some of the parts we didn’t even think were funny because he’s having a good time. We think the music should do the same thing. It has all come together.
Some of the other shows I’ve worked on have developed their own sound — Arrow or Supergirl. They’re more thematic, or what have you. To me, Riverdale feels like a warm blanket wrapped around you. It says, “Come to this safe, but dark world.” There are times when the story goes very cold, so that’s when the score needs to feel warm to provide a balance.
I think most composers can relate to this, but when a show gets emotional, that’s where we can really dive in melodically and thematically. Any time I get to take the Riverdale theme and put a twist on it, it’s always fun. The thing about Greg Berlanti is, he writes huge, huge stories. These shows are about these larger than life characters, but it still boils them down to their most human level. You’ve got these teenagers in a town that doesn't even exist. This year, they’re battling gargoyles and serial killers, but at its core, we are looking at two teenagers trying to learn how to get through life together. If you don’t make the emotional moments as real and human as possible, then the show doesn’t work.
In seasons past, you have deployed sustained synths, ethereal piano, crystalline ornaments, and an unrelenting undercurrent of tension in the sound world of Riverdale. What subliminal messages do you intend to send to the viewers through the score? How have you built upon this highly stylized palette in season three?
Well, it's fascinating that you picked up on those that you named because that is the soup for the menu of underlying elements. There’s always tension, and it never lets up. Even when the music is not there, there’s always tension. You have to pull your inspiration from what you’re seeing. I've never been successful writing to a script, so I had no idea how dark this would be. I read the Riverdale script, and it reads one way, I saw what Lee shot, and wow, it’s gorgeous and literally doused with heavy colors, but there’s a lot of tension there. There's a tension to the camera, the way it's shot, the lighting, so I wanted to match that, but not add too much.
Those layers play into what we're seeing. There’s always a tension in the darkness, but it can also be a bright and happy place, which comes from the more crystalline, ethereal stuff. It’s an emotional journey, which, to me, always speaks through the piano and the strings. Because we’re not such a string-heavy show, that’s where the lush synths come in to make things cozy. That’s really what we’re trying to get across with each cue. We just focus on what’s happening in each scene.
Are there any specific synths or plug-ins that you couldn’t do without on Riverdale?
Well, no. I’m not a quitter, so I'd find a way out. I'd come up with some spin and say, "That piano died with that character, so now, we have a new one." I'm never going to be painted into a corner on one of these things. There's always a way to figure out how to do it.
That being said, I do have some favorite sounds and plug-ins and things like that, but we all do. What’s been interesting is that I’ve had years where I’ll have back-to-back shows on the CW, but they’re in the same universe. It’d be like Arrow and then The Flash, so I wasn’t thinking, "Oh, do I sound like myself in every show?”. This is the first year that we have two completely different universes — we have Riverdale, followed by All American. I’ve been very cognizant of not being able to cross breed. They have nothing to do with each other, so whether it’s chord progression or style, I have to be conscious of that. I would love to use my go-to synths on All American, but I tell myself, "Can't do it. You'll end up sounding like Riverdale.” It’s been an interesting switch, and it means that I’ll get to find new sounds, which is cool.
For Riverdale, I absolutely love this company called u-he. They make Zebra, Hive, Diva, Repro 1, Repro 5. They're just continually coming up with great stuff. Maybe it’s because we did it early on, but it just feels like the show. I can dial in something, and it just becomes the sound, but it’s also very layered. I can look at something I did and see there are plug-ins from seven different companies going. That’s cool too because every one of them has their own very specific sound. One might be slightly brighter, one might be a little more metallic, and that’s cool when you start mixing them.
Do you implement hardware synths as well?
Oh yeah. We've got hardware synths, real vocals, and I even play guitar on Riverdale. What's funny is I'm not a guitar player, and we’re in Los Angeles. I can get the best guitarists in the world, but the reason I decided to play guitar is that I feel like it has this innocent quality to it because I’m not a professional. It’s slightly amateur, kind of mediocre playing, just one note at a time against this highly polished backdrop of synths and a blanket of sound. It just became a thing for Riverdale, so now, I love doing it. I do whatever I can to make it sound right — bury it in tracks and plug-ins. At first, it sounds like my dog could come and play this thing.
In recent years, you have become the not so secret weapon behind numerous DC Comics phenomenons including Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow. What are the essential components of a score fit for a superhero?
When I start on one of these shows, I think the number one thing on my mind is that these characters have been around since way before my parents were even around, so I want to protect and honor them. It's terrifying if a director or producer says, "Write me an iconic theme." I don't know what's going to be iconic. You don't know what's going to be iconic. Years from now, we’ll find out. I take it as they are saying to dig deep, don’t just phone something in for this important character. It's my responsibility to uphold these characters. They also come along with a long history, and they come with a huge fan base, who, in this day and age, are quick to tell you if you screwed something up on social media.
As far as components, I feel like there needs to be a strong theme per character. It needs to be individualistic, and scored more operatically, so even with a light motif, when a character’s not there, you can allude to them with their theme. I think that's very necessary. You have to find a way to show power with a theme, and each of them has to have their own power.
Legends of Tomorrow has this kind of rock-based, “we don’t care, we’re screwing up all the time” pirate-y feel. Supergirl has a much more traditional, powerful sound. Arrow derives from a similar type of instrumentation and then The Flash, it’s always just fast music. They each have to have an individual voice, but they are cut from the same cloth because all of these shows are in the same family. All four of them are kicking ass. Because they’re all connected, we always have a chance to cross-pollinate themes. Sometimes, The Flash will be on Arrow or Supergirl will be on Legends, so it becomes really fun. The sound palette keeps growing with each show, and it all feels like one big universe. This year, we’re going to introduce Batwoman, which I’m excited about. I think the most incredible thing has been to watch Greg build this strong franchise that keeps birthing new babies.
You were saying that when you were growing up that you were an avid comic book reader. Were you a big DC Comics fan?
I read DC almost exclusively. I’m not just saying that for my employers. My first one was Aquaman, so I’ve always wanted to do Aquaman. I didn’t read Flash, and I knew of Green Arrow, but I didn’t read it. I was a big Batman guy. It’s interesting because a lot of people that were into the Green Arrow weren’t into Batman and vice versa because it serves the vigilante craving in comic books — he doesn’t have superpowers, he’s just a super cool, smart, strong, and rich guy. It’s all been exciting. I’m actually glad that I didn’t know some of these characters so well. Everyone knows who The Flash is, but I just didn’t follow him that much. So, it wasn’t pressure at all when Greg [Berlanti] told me that The Flash was his number one favorite comic character, so when that opportunity came about, I was like, ”Okay, better get this right."
In general, how do you establish the musical vocabulary of a new show?
I usually try to establish rules for my shows for two reasons. One, once I started doing multiple shows, I didn't want to repeat myself. And two, one day a while back, I spent all day writing this great cue for Arrow only to realize that it was The Mentalist theme.
After that, I said, "Okay. We gotta establish some hard rules that can trick my brain into thinking, 'And now I'm in Riverdale mode.'" One of those things is a specific sound palette, specific instrumentation, specific sense, specific pianos. It codes your brain, so as soon as I play the Riverdale piano, I’m right in that world. I could still be playing piano, but if it’s a different piano sound, then I’m onto The Flash, and I’ll play differently. That process really helps me.
All American is based on the life story of the professional football player, Spencer Paysinger. This series examines the stark contrasts between the opulence of Beverly Hills and the dangers of Crenshaw, exploring themes of racism, gang violence, privilege, family secrets, and melodramatic romance. What was the guiding force behind your score for All American? What aspects of this layered story required the most attention musically?
I went to a meeting early on while they were shooting and I felt like the source music was going to establish where we were in terms of place. The audience was going to know where they were, whether it was with teenagers in Crenshaw or the parents in Beverly Hills based on the songs that were chosen, so I didn’t feel the need to make the score feel particularly urban, rich or poor, young or old. You know, a score can be a geographical stamp, it can be an emotional stamp, it can be a time stamp, it can be all of the above. I just thought that the score needed to serve as the emotional connective tissue throughout.
All American isn’t just a teen soap. It has heavy emotional content. It’s kind of how Friday Night Lights surprised everyone. Not to compare the two just because they are about football, but I think some people see a football show, and they come with a certain expectation. Now, All American delivers football, I mean it's some of the coolest-shot football out there, but it also gets into some topics that need to be talked about these days. They're getting into racism, disposition of wealth, school fighting, bullying, drug problems. In a way, it’s all the stuff we’ve been shying away from in the last couple of years.
To be honest, I was a little intimidated to get involved with the show at first because I'm like, "I'm not the urban guy," and then I started thinking, "No, that's not what I'm here for. It's a personal show. I'm just here to score the human experience in this — whether black, white, gay, lesbian, female, male, adult, kid." So, that’s how I approached the show. I don't care what the scene is. What becomes very interesting is how you learn, even in the second episode, that Beverly Hills is a lot more screwed up than Crenshaw. There's such a family-unit structure in the Crenshaw story, and the family is just so broken in the Beverly Hills story. We see that those without money have more than those who have money. It's fascinating how that's come out so quickly.
All American is peppered with prominently featured works of hip-hop and other contemporary songs curated by music supervisor, Madonna Wade-Reed. Your score ties in very naturally to this virile, high energy musical landscape. Did you consult with each other to create a strong sense of cohesion and stay true the spirit of this project?
Madonna's been great. We’ve talked a lot, and I get to hear what songs she's thinking about. There's definitely a style, a specific sound to her song choices. As I said, I’m trying to do something very different, but when I need to bleed in some elements, I’ve reached out to find out what else we are working with. The thing that I’ve loved experimenting with is all the drum corps to give it that football sound. It’s been so much fun to bring in these elements for other scenes, like at the houses or the parties. Drum corps have such a specific sound. Once you get it in people’s heads, they hear it, and they immediately think All American, and that’s a success.
In the score, I’m using an actual drum corps that I recorded —The Cadets Drum Corps from Indianapolis. I recorded heaps and heaps of material that I’ve been able to cut, play and position within my writing. That’s just been great fun. I’m eventually going to run out of material, so I’ll have to go back to Indianapolis, or maybe I’ll go to Atlanta and record their great drum corps. It’s not something I’ve used in any other show. As I was saying earlier, you’ve got create a different palette every time. Otherwise, I’d be writing Riverdale all day for All American.
When you recorded the drum corps in Indianapolis, was it just a stereo recording? Did you multi-track? What was your method?
We multi-tracked because I wanted to get just the snares, just the bass drums, just the tenors, and then capture everything as a whole. It’s all broken down, but now, there are ways that I can take one hit and put it in my keyboard, so I can play what parts are missing, or I can cut up what they recorded. You can really do anything with audio these days. The only thing you can’t do is make it sound as real as it is when it’s real. That’s why I went there specifically to record them.
You have previously been involved in the fulfillment of music for prestigious sporting events including the Winter Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup Final Draw for an audience of 1 billion viewers. What are the unique benefits and challenges of scoring music for athletic events designed for gargantuan audiences and on-screen sports sequences?
I was an orchestrator and conductor for the FIFA World Cup. The music was written by Vangelis, who I was fortunate to work with for many years. For the 2002 Winter Olympics, I wrote a piece with another friend of mine, which was used when they bring in the flags for the ceremony. What was fun about that was there was no picture, there was no story. You’re just writing a piece of music with a specific emotion in place. In the case of the World Cup, it was this anthemic rise for the occasion, a way to signify the start of the event.
You put yourself in the headspace of tradition and honor, working off things like that. With the World Cup, the purpose was to get everyone excited. There are so many emotions you can have with sports, but it is fun to do because you're not necessarily telling a story with your music. You're really conveying a specific feeling. You’re creating something that says, “Let’s feel a certain way,” whether it's to rise up and get on your feet or offer respect to these amazing athletes who are entering the stadium.
Lifetime's You follows the journey of cunning bookstore manager, Joe Goldberg, who develops an obsession with Beck, an aspiring poet who visits his store. Using every trick in the book to spy on her and isolate her from the obstacles in his way, Joe's infatuation takes a turn for the malevolent. Within your score, you have created two parallel sound worlds which mirror the duality of the protagonist. How did you embark on your creative process? Was it a conscious choice to weave in and out of these two registers in a seamless way?
It's absolutely conscious. I'll tell you the interesting thrust that I understood of the series, and of the book it was based on. It was, “Can you portray a horrible person, a stalker of women, a sexual predator and make the audience feel compassionate towards him?” If you can do that, it makes for a fascinating philosophical dilemma that can mess with your head.
I was always thinking it needed to be really dark and brooding, almost like the inner workings of his brain. I was going for this very syncopated yet steady, calculated, and rhythmic synth sound, but then I had to think, “Can we pull this off? Can we be compassionate?” All Berlanti [Greg, famed producer/writer/director] shows, they’re all about human emotion. At his core, even a psycho killer or a stalker is an emotional person. I felt like I had to be intentionally respectful of that and there needed to be legitimate emotional score along with the horror score, which helps drive the story. I don’t think the show ever feels fast-paced. It has a very slow boil to it. You can’t push the tempo too much. I remember for this heavy action chase scene, we still chose to hold it back and keep that slow boil.
By the end of the series, I was converted. It was interesting. It's an art and quite a ride too. I think if you wrote a diary about how you felt from episode one until episode ten, you would feel a very different way. It's not an easy show to watch, but it's kind of fun in a terrible way.
If you were faced with the prospect of starting your career in film music all over again in the present, where would you start and what would you do differently than your first time around?
Oh man. Is it cheesy to say I wouldn't change anything? If I changed anything, I might have done the butterfly effect and never met Greg Berlanti. I’ve worked with arguably some of the greatest masters in this business — Michael Kamen, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, and Vangelis. That tells me I did it right, but it was all luck. It was also hard work, but it was being in the right place, answering the right calls, and showing up. So, I hate to say it, but I wouldn't really change anything. I love my career, and I've been very fortunate. I hope to keep doing it a lot longer.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Ruby Gartenberg, Paul Goldowitz
Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Blake Neely, Camille Miller, and Costa Communications.